Will on the Hill has been an annual tradition for nearly 20 years at the Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. Not only is the evening of comedy a celebration of William Shakespeare’s works, it’s also a time for actors and members of Congress to gather and perform. It’s heralded as a day of bipartisanship in support of the STC’s arts education programs.
This year was the first time the event was held virtually. Will on the Hill was broadcast on September 14, but the stream was available for ticket holders for another three days.
The script for 2020 was titled Will on the Hill…or Won’t They?, written by playwright, director, and actor Nat Cassidy (Any Day Now, Old Familiar Faces). It’s an apt title, capturing a prevalent feeling about these COVID-19 times: will this or that event be held or cancelled? Directed by Samantha Wyer Bello, the play is run very much like an ongoing Zoom call.
Quinn C. Peters (Christopher Michael Richardson), the director within the play, is tasked with gathering the actors and members of Congress. However, keeping the call organized is a bit more of a challenge than he’d anticipated. Peters promises that a special guest is due to arrive to the call to provide a coaching session. We find out halfway through that the guest is Michael Urie playing himself.
Peters laments that all of the members of Congress invited to Will on the Hill have opted to do monologues by Shakespeare. His hopes about the only dialogue performance are dashed for most of the call because of a feud between Senator Smith (Holly Twyford) and Senator Jones (E. Faye Butler). Smith and Jones are from different parties, yet they are highly regarded for their record of bipartisanship over the years.
However, that strong connection crashed a few days before, because Smith said some unkind things about Jones and her bill on Meet the Press. Smith and Jones initially refuse to communicate with each other directly, speaking through their aides Jessica (Felicia Curry) and Ronny (Gregory Wooddell). But in time, you get a chance to see Smith and Jones bicker and scream at each other, which is amusing. Curiously enough, it turns out that Jessica and Ronny live in the same apartment and are secretly in a relationship.
A lot of the gags revolve around the Zoom mishaps that many Zoom users encounter: people who mute themselves unintentionally, poor connections, and interruptions. Peters tries to rein everyone in with paper signs that he holds on occasion. He had written “Please shut up” on one when there were too many people talking at once, deciding to send away everyone for a break except Jones and Smith. His patience wears thin with the two Senators, however, and he sends them to an early lunch.
While Peters is away, the conversation carries two major threads both laden with words from Shakespeare’s works. Sometimes Smith, Jones, Jessica, and Ronny quote from Shakespeare. Often the call cut away to let actual members of Congress say the famous lines, sometimes even as a commentary on what was happening. These included Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE), Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS), Sen. Angus King (I-ME), Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), and more. Actors would also appear from time to time as themselves to chime in, including Harry Hamlin, André De Shields, Stacy Keach, and a memorable Franchelle Stewart Dorn as Hermia.
Jessica and Ronny have a discussion about why they should be helping to support the theatre and how to be involved in the important issues of the day. It serves as a reminder to the audience of what we can do and how to support arts education.
Urie, Jones, and Smith teach Jessica and Ronny about William Shakespeare’s life and what made his work unique. The tidbits of knowledge they provided were interesting, peppered with references to pop culture and Congressional terminology. For example, Ronny says that he doesn’t like Hamlet, stating that for some parts “it’s like accidentally leaving on C-SPAN.” When Jessica tries to put a new spin on some Shakespeare lines, congresspeople vehemently insist on a motion to “censure” and follow the “process to approve rewrites.”
I did find that the discussion nearly went a tad too long within the hour, and probably should have been broken up a little more. The Director breaking up the potential monotony with his handmade signs and his check-ins provided welcome breaks. Other cast members could likewise have used signs or visual aids in their history lessons.
Overall, this year’s Will on the Hill was a delightful virtual experience. I found the fusion of Shakespeare and our American political terminology to be clever. It was also interesting to see members of Congress performing Shakespeare with varying degrees in ability, whether feigned or actual. It makes me curious to find out what an in-person Will on the Hill experience is like. May that opportunity for in-person theatre come in 2021!